By Michael J. Green & Nicholas Szechenyi
Today Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan became the first Japanese leader ever to address a joint session of Congress. Abe summarized key themes for U.S.-Japan relations including history, as August marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
What were the core themes of the speech?
Abe stressed the economic and strategic importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to Japan and the United States and called for joint leadership to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. He also summarized his domestic economic reform agenda with references to agriculture, corporate governance, deregulation, and women’s empowerment. Abe then discussed the agenda for the bilateral security alliance including the new guidelines for defense cooperation, networking with other countries in the region, and maritime security. This review of the current policy landscape was designed to highlight Abe’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and a continued leadership role for Japan in international affairs. But his address began with reflections on World War II and the process of reconciliation between the two countries.
How did Prime Minister Abe address history issues?
Abe visited the World War II Memorial prior to the speech and used the term “deep repentance” when reflecting on that experience. He made a statement about the war: “My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.” Abe then recognized a U.S. veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima and a Japanese lawmaker whose grandfather was the commander of the Japanese garrison at Iwo Jima to commemorate efforts at reconciliation between the two countries that served as a foundation for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe also stated that Japan’s actions brought suffering to the people of Asia and that he would uphold statements on the war expressed by previous prime ministers.
Did Abe say enough about the past?
The speech was well received in Congress, but there were protests by Korean-American groups elsewhere who called on Abe to issue an apology to Korean “comfort women” forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the war. Abe was asked about this issue during his joint press conference with President Obama on April 28 and said he was “deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking.” (He used similar language when asked about this issue during a speech at Harvard University on April 27.) Abe used new language when reflecting on this issue and in his congressional speech stressed the importance of preventing human rights abuses against women in the context of Japan taking responsibility for peace and stability in the world.
The Japanese government has apologized repeatedly for the war, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia and others have noted that a new official apology is not necessary. Those close to Abe believe his commitment to uphold previous government statements and recent expressions of remorse constitute a sincere effort to address this issue, and the Abe government has established an advisory committee to help shape a statement to be issued on August 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Abe’s treatment of the past probably met expectations in the United States but almost certainly will not meet demands in China, where delegitimization of Japan has become a central narrative. The administration will be most interested in the official Korean reaction, since reconciliation between Japan and Korea has been an important strategic objective as the United States seeks to strengthen security relations under the rebalance to Asia.
Abe’s visit to Washington was important for U.S.-Japan relations and set the tone for this anniversary year in reflecting on the past and celebrating the remarkable transformation of the relationship into an alliance for hope.
Dr. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS. He is also an associate professor of international relations and director for Asian studies at Georgetown University.